The most common disease in America is something you probably never heard of, but it affects 90 million Americans and is a major risk factor for diabetes, heart attacks, and even cancer.
It is called NALFD (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease) or fatty liver, for short, and is caused by the 152 pounds of sugar and 146 pounds of flour in our diet.
How do you know if you have it? What’s causing it? And how do you fix it? Do you exercise, take drugs, change your diet, or take supplements to fix it?
Many of you are probably wondering, “What is a fatty liver?” Some of you may have heard of foie gras. Foie gras is the French term for fatty liver that is used to describe a delicacy made from duck or goose liver. What happens to the livers of these animals as a result of the controversial practice of overfeeding is what you could be doing to your own liver, unknowingly. For those people who have this disease, essentially what they have is a liver that is full of fat, and that is a major cause of chronic disease and inflammation in the body.
How is it that we live in a country where fatty liver is the single most common disease, but most people have never even heard of it? 70 to 90 million Americans have a fatty liver and almost none of them know they have it. In fact, you might have it, as well, and not even know it.
What causes it?
In order to make foie gras, ducks or geese are force-?fed sugar in the form of corn and starch—a sad practice. In the body, this sugar turns on a fat-?production factory in the liver, a process known as lipogenesis, which is the body’s normal response to sugar. Fructose actually ramps up the lipogenesis response.
The high fructose corn syrup found in our processed foods is the single biggest cause of fatty liver. Soda, which, frighteningly, is the number one source of calories in the American diet, is, then, the biggest cause of fatty liver.
How do you know if you have it?
There are blood tests available that can detect a fatty liver. You can also see it on an ultrasound. And if your test comes back abnormal, you are in trouble. But even if your test comes back normal you might not be out of the woods. It’s important to know that a liver function test doesn’t always detect a fatty liver. An ultrasound can be more sensitive.
The bottom line is, if you eat a lot of sugar and flour, if you have a little bit of belly fat, or if you crave carbs, starch, and sugar, you probably have this.
Why is this a problem?
Fatty liver creates a whole cascade of issues. It causes inflammation in your body. This inflammation creates insulin resistance and pre-?diabetes, which causes your body to deposit fat not just in your liver but also all around your organs and in your belly.
That dangerous belly fat caused by the sugar and starch in your diet then creates even more problems. It causes you to have high triglycerides and low HDL, the good cholesterol. It causes you to have small LDL, the dangerous cholesterol particles that cause heart attacks.
In fact, having a fatty liver puts you at great risk for having a heart attack, and most people have no idea they have it. Certain populations like Latin Americans have a much higher risk of having a fatty liver.
And shockingly, now, we see 12-year-old boys who have lived on soda for years needing liver transplants from fatty liver. That’s pretty scary, and we really need to think about what we are doing to our children by feeding them these toxic substances.
When you have a fatty liver, you need to think about the damage it’s causing. You don’t want to end up with a liver transplant. You don’t want to end up needing to be on medications to fix the complications of a fatty liver like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and abnormal cholesterol. You want to get to the root of the problem.
How To Fix Your Fatty Liver
There are some really simple things you can do with diet, exercise, and supplements to help heal your fatty liver.
- Cut out all high fructose corn syrup from your diet. If you see it on any label for any product—whether it’s a salad dressing or ketchup or tomato sauce—don’t eat it. Think about it: most servings of tomato sauce that you buy in a jar have more sugar than a serving of Oreo cookies. Get rid of all that high fructose corn syrup from your diet, 100 percent, no exceptions.
- Reduce or eliminate starch. Get rid of white, processed flour. Even whole grain flours can be a problem. It’s common to find too much of these starchy foods in the classic American diet, or what we call the SAD (Standard American Diet). All of those things will promote a fatty liver. You may be surprised to learn that it’s actually not fat that causes a fatty liver. It’s sugar. To learn more about why this is true, check out my book, The Blood Sugar Solution.
- Add some good things to your diet to help heal your fatty liver. Add plenty of fruit, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Add lean animal protein like chicken and fish. Add good oils like olive oil, macadamia nut oil, avocados, coconut butter, and fish oil. Good fats like these are anti-?inflammatory, and they help repair your liver.
- Improve your metabolism through exercise. This is a fabulous way to improve insulin resistance and reduce fatty liver.
- Use the right supplements. I do a lot of this with my patients, and I find it very effective. We give them herbs like Milk Thistle. We use things like Lipoic Acid, a powerful antioxidant, and N-Acetyl?l-Cysteine. These things help boost something in your liver called glutathione. I encourage you to read my blog on glutathione, which talks about how this wonderful detox substance in your liver can be regenerated with certain supplements. And we use other things like B vitamins and magnesium. All these things will help your liver repair and heal.
- Eat detoxifying liver-repairing super foods. Focus on the broccoli family. I love this family of foods, and I try to have at least a cup or two every day. Kale, collards, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, arugula, daikon radish—all wonderful foods that help repair and heal your liver. Garlic and onions, also, are full of sulfur, which is a great detoxifier.
I promise you, you don’t want a fatty liver. You need a healthy liver to help you deal with all the junk and chemicals in our environment. When you have a healthy liver, your body stays healthy, you don’t get sick, and you can feel good, which is what I want for everybody.
Mark Hyman, MD
Dr. Hyman is dedicated to identifying and addressing the root causes of chronic illness through a groundbreaking whole-systems medicine approach called Functional Medicine. He is a family physician, a four-time New York Times bestselling author, and an international leader in his field.